When workers at a Frito-Lay production plant in Topeka, Kansas, went on strike last month, they threw into relief the fact that the increased pandemic-era snacking that has boosted profits for PepsiCo, Frito-Lay’s parent company, has come courtesy of working conditions so bad as to lead to suicides and divorces. Now, workers are on strike at another snack-food company, one responsible for Oreos, Triscuits, Planters nuts, and Ritz crackers — Nabisco.
Workers at a Nabisco bakery in Portland, Oregon, went on strike on August 10. They have been working twelve-to-sixteen-hour shifts, with some working seven days a week. The workers say the company is pushing for an alternative workweek, a concession that would take away overtime pay for Saturdays and Sundays, with time paid at regular rates until a worker hits forty hours, regardless of the shift’s length or the day of the week. One worker told the Huffington Post that the changes could amount to a loss of $10,000 a year for some workers. Nabisco is also pushing for a two-tier health care plan, which would slot newer workers into a higher-cost deal while also serving to divide workers within the union.
While Nabisco, which is owned by parent company Mondelēz International (the company was spun off from snack giant Kraft Foods in 2012), saw profits nearly double in the latest quarter of 2021, its workers have seen none of that money, all while working through the pandemic. As the Northwest Labor Press noted, Nabisco CEO Dirk Van de Put received $18 million in compensation in 2020, 561 times that of the company’s median worker.
The Portland workers are members of Local 364 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), the same union that represents the Frito-Lay workers in Topeka. In the days since the roughly two hundred workers in Portland began their strike, other Nabisco bakery and production workers have followed them out the door. The strike has spread to Aurora, Colorado, and Richmond, Virginia. Nathan Williams, an oiler at the Richmond plant who has worked there for thirty years, told Vice that, during the pandemic, “Some people worked every day — 16 hours a day — for three months.”
The workers are covered by a pattern agreement, meaning they have identical contracts, all of which expired earlier this summer. In a statement on the spreading strike, Mondelēz International said that it is “disappointed” by the workers’ decision to strike, adding, “Our goal has been — and continues to be — to bargain in good faith.”
The Nabisco strike is another example of a dynamic spreading across industries in the United States: as employers scramble to staff up, many currently employed workers are subjected to mandatory overtime, with bosses seeking to work them to the bone rather than recruit more people — a potentially costly move when workers are hard to find. In response, some workers are using their increased leverage during a period of employer panic over the tight labor market to push back, demanding better wages and working conditions — and much of the time, those demands are about hours and scheduling.
In a statement on the Richmond strike, which began on August 15, BCTGM president Anthony Shelton said workers in all three states “are telling Nabisco to put an end to the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico and get off the ridiculous demand for contract concessions at a time when the company is making record profits.”
The reference to outsourcing is a long-standing concern, as Nabisco continues to close operations in the United States while building up plants in Mexico. In 2015, the company told workers at its Chicago factory to accept a 60 percent cut in pay and benefits or it would lay them off and focus on a newly established operation in Salinas, Mexico. The workers refused the obscene concession. Despite receiving rhetorical support from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign — on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Trump said, “I’m not eating Oreos anymore” — they failed to force Nabisco to reverse its decision. Some six hundred workers lost their jobs.
As Stephen Franklin wrote of the Chicago plant closure at In These Times, the move was a means of taking advantage of the exploitation faced by workers in Mexico. Shortly after opening its Salinas plant in 2014, Nabisco signed a union contract that “capped the top day rate at 200 pesos, about $14.90 per day. BCTGM eventually obtained a copy of the contract, which it called proof that the Mexican workers were victims of a protection contract.” Such contracts are dictated by the company, which picks a union and enforces its terms through it, hobbling workers’ ability to independently organize. This move by Nabisco underlines the necessity of raising labor standards across borders, with workers at Nabisco’s operations in the United States and Mexico needing one another if they’re to stymie the company’s ruthless pursuit of lower labor costs.
This year, Nabisco closed two locations — one in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and the other in Atlanta, Georgia, affecting some one thousand BCTGM members. The union says the company continues to threaten to shutter operations in the United States if workers don’t accept concessions.
Such is the context for the Nabisco strike: pushed to the brink, workers walked out. Spirits are high on the picket lines — community members and organizations like Democratic Socialists of America are showing up in support, with the Frito-Lay workers in Topeka sending pizza. A growing number of people are sick of the tyranny of work, fed up with spending so many hours either on the job or on the way to and from it. Nabisco workers are some of those people. Now is no time for concessions.